Harold Robbins: 'Life is good...' but then what?


"The Stallion," by Harold Robbins. Simon & Schuster. 364 pages. $23

Nothing happens in "The Stallion." Oh, bras are removed at business meetings; aroused women waylay hard-working businessmen in Tokyo hotel suites; couples periodically bind and whip each other with resigned marital boredom; decrepit, caddish millionaires about to disinherit sluttish granddaughters are smothered with pillows on their hundredth birthday - but since it is all presented with the life and personality of a Facts on File account of a parliamentary bi-election in New Zealand (though without Facts on File's professionalism and clarity), the entire tale of dysfunctional automotive executives and the nymphomaniacs who pursue them ultimately lacks a vivifying sense of event.

Now that Dean Martin has moved on to the great Caesar's Palace in the sky, isn't it time to retire this dated, dawn-of-the-Cold-War version of the lowest common denominator of male fantasy? Where the drinks are cold and the women are hot, where no woman wears clothes in a private setting - even if the "privacy" is that of the corporate boardroom - and the sequences describing sexual encounters, recounted with a clinically repellent monotony, are interspersed by scenes of men quietly assessing the size of their "member" and its contribution to their share of life's rewards.

The Stallion, which spans the years 1972 to 1995 in a breathlessly cavalier fashion, is a sequel to "The Betsy," Mr. Robbins' imaginary take on the relationship between a scion of the Ford family and upstart Lee Iacocca. Beginning where "The Betsy" left off, it reintroduces Loren Hardeman the First (referred to throughout as Number One), the codger who expires as he reaches the century mark. In both books, this auto industry giant and his grandson, Number Three, zigzag between the greed that draws them to the visionary Angelo Perino, another upstart who shares Iacocca's ethnicity, and familial loyalty that has them unpredictably turning on Perino and his tribe from time to time.

The story - with its gobbledygook board meetings (where Perino, catnip to everything in sheer underpants, has slept with every woman present - at the insistence of the women) and mysterioso auto lore (something about electronic brakes and a leaking battery) - is impossible to follow. Mr. Robbins has so little feel for the tensions and subtleties of political maneuvering that the scenes of sex-obsessed women removing their clothing in the presence of well-built men come as a kind of relief - at least they have comprehensible content.

Not one character possesses a trace of individuality of identity, not one business transaction, be it a proxy fight or blackmail, rings true. Reading "The Stallion" is like being heavily tranquilized on thorazine, confined within a straitjacket in a padded room with a window - there's a glimpse of air, light and reality visible in the distance, but it is muffled, murky and barely recognizable. The book's last line - a real concession of defeat - says it all. "Life is good," Angelo Perino assures his daughter on her wedding day, "... for the good." The publicity material claims that 40,000 people purchase a book by Mr. Robbins every single day. They can't all be adolescents on the cusp of puberty; it implies, worldwide, an awful lot of birdcages needing to be lined.

Anita Finkel is associate editor of Collier's Encyclopedia and editor and publisher of the New Dance Review, She has worked for Ballet News, Barron's and Charles Scribner's Sons.

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